What Does Freedom Mean? July 4 + 244 Years

July 4, 2019, Kellen Lenz, 4, and Kallie Crawford

My best July 4th? A picnic on the National Mall, red-and-white-checkered tablecloth laid out with fried chicken, butter-dripping off the corn-on-the-cob, and large slices of watermelon to listen to the Washington Symphony play John Phillip Sousa’s marching tunes. Inevitably my daughter would need a PortaPotty visit when they would begin to play my favorite Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. We would be back in time for the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture complete with cannons—the signal that fireworks would begin.

 Not just any fireworks, but the loudest, most colorful display we would ever see. Red, green, blue, yellow, purple bursts high above us that seemed the size of a city block—one on top of another, then side-to-side, flipping and disappearing, so another could appear to complete with a waterfall of white bursts shimmering nearly to the ground.

Washington’s fireworks are also the smokiest display with the smell of gunpowder descending into the audience, bringing me back to the origin of July 4th, 1776. Fifty-six men from the 13 Colonies (it was just men then) signed the Declaration of Independence. By signing they were acting against a powerful British Crown and several of them paid dearly for their bravery. Five men were tortured and killed for treason at the hands of the British. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons as revolutionary soldiers and two other sons were captured.

How are we addressing basic freedoms in 2020?  A year ago my blog “Celebrating a Nation of Promise. . .and Contradiction” gave a hint of the future ahead of us. We struggle to deliver  “freedom” and we’re realizing it isn’t doled out equally, either economically or in health care. Now in a Pandemic, fighting a disease we cannot see or taste, some feel paralyzed unable to fight a ghost. Others, now several months in, are emboldened, eager to make a stand against it by going out into it, fearless to combat it as if it, too, were a human prepared for battle, only to find it is deceptive.

Months confined to working from home or not working at all makes us eager to escape to life as we once knew it. Those at the bottom of the Pandemic economy, brought on full force by March 2020, some in the nursing homes deepest hit, cleaners in houses and offices forced out of employment, workers in fast-food or restaurants, have greater struggles feeding families and paying rent. What happens to their financial freedom under Coronavirus?

We struggle to find answers. The nation’s been a financial colossus, leading the world in output– Gross National Product for the U.S. in 2019 was over $19 trillion, and growing 2.1 percent. But in the first quarter (January through March, when the coronavirus was not at its peak) GNP dropped by 5 percent, a huge hit. This may seem far afield from the original thoughts of Independence, until you think about what independence means to each of us.

At first when I think of “Independence, ” I think about the natural desire of teenagers, who fight their parents to get adult responsibilities, only to find themselves not totally prepared to shoulder all of them. In this economy some young adults return home not just to find solace, maybe they’ve lost a job or their college is closed. Once back, the price of dependence, living at home, becomes a bit steep.

Now as adults we can get bogged down with our responsibilities, as we struggle to weave our own safety nets. Freedom has more than one meaning when you are in close quarters with others—you can’t be free yourself if you are endangering others. The phrase “what goes around comes around” seems trite, but we see we are not at the end of this as the number of Coronavirus cases tops 500,000 across America. Thursday, July 2 hit a record 55,000 cases reported in a single day. A second wave threatens to sink the progress we have made.

People with the virus don’t turn green or have red spots like measles, so we can’t immediately treat them, then go about our lives. To avoid spreading the disease, we need to take the health risk seriously. Wearing a mask may cover the all-important smile and wear on the ears if not adjusted, may make it tougher to breathe in hot weather, but would you really want to carry the disease to a friend, neighbor, or grandparent? Washing hands, is that such a difficult task? Is social distancing such a burden when it can mean a hospital bed will be available for you or a co-worker if you become ill?   

Now freedom requires responsibility. This is a domestic battle and we are called upon to make sacrifices. If you look at it in a different way—it gives new meaning to the word “freedom.” It is being part of something greater than yourself.  It is a modern take on re-establishing a nation– to declare independence from a insidious disease to protect others.

Now you don a mask and respect the 6-foot markers on the cement in front of you. The odds seem in your favor. It is easier than toting a gun—you can still be a fatality or be injured (lungs, heart and mental capacity) for life. But your chances are much better if you take precautions, suffer a little discomfort to protect your community get back to moving the economy forward for all Americans.

Enjoy the fried chicken, cherry pie, corn-on-the-cob, watermelon, squeeze your family members, and carefully send up some fireworks. Set aside a moment to think about what freedom means to you in 2020 and how you can make a difference moving the country forward, not backward.

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